Sheriff's informants aid in prostitution arrests

Published August 18, 2006

The informants called first to make an appointment.

Then, when they arrived at the high-ceilinged home in Wesley Chapel's gated Seven Oaks neighborhood, they were taken to a room for a massage.

Soon after the session began, according to court documents, the confidential informants who visited Pine Point Drive paid for and received the services of a prostitute.

Turns out, sex for hire in the name of law enforcement isn't so uncommon.

"(Confidential informants) help us, especially in vice narcotics, all the time," Pasco Sheriff's Office spokesman Doug Tobin said.

"We use them to hang out in bars, have drinks and make criminal contacts, or make drug buys or go in houses of prostitution."

Court rulings involving informants and sex have run the gamut, and experts differ on whether a legal line was crossed in the recent Wesley Chapel case.

In 2004, a judge in Tampa dismissed a case against a woman accused of prostitution, ruling police went too far in allowing a confidential informant to receive oral sex before busting in to make the arrest.

In 2002, Pasco deputies arrested the owner of a Hudson lingerie modeling shop after a woman was caught performing a lewd act on an informant, but prosecutors later had to drop the charges when the informant refused to testify.

In the current case at the Seven Oaks home, where neighbors saw men coming and going at all hours, authorities say they were careful to build a case they could win.

"We worked very closely with the State Attorney's Office on this to make sure we had a solid case that could be defended and successfully prosecuted," Tobin said.

Rick Leal, a former prosecutor in Hillsborough who now does defense work, disputes the premise: "You can't break the law to enforce the law."

Two people are in jail following the Aug. 10 raid at 27623 Pine Point Drive. Authorities say the home, advertised on the Internet as a massage parlor, was a front for prostitution.

Laura Kessler, 46, and Richard Beck, 47, each face charges of racketeering and unlicensed practice of health care. They are being held in the Land O'Lakes jail in lieu of $110,000 bail apiece.

A search warrant details the lengths to which the Sheriff's Office went to secure the arrests.

On at least five occasions during July, informants met with sheriff's detectives and were given cash, between $60 and $130. Then they went to the house wearing a hidden recording device as detectives listened in.

In the first visit described in the warrant, informant "CI 06-07" went to the house July 20 with $60, a bug and an appointment with Kessler. The document says she began massaging the informant's back, but the talk soon turned to sex.

Then Kessler told the man to turn over, and she masturbated him until he ejaculated, the document says.

The visit is similar to others detailed in the warrant. On some occasions, Kessler offered oral sex to the informants; they declined.

In one visit, a male and female informant visited the house together. Beck and Kessler gave simultaneous massages, which eventually led to sex acts, the warrant says.

The Sheriff's Office said no deputies engaged in sex acts, and that the agency's rules of conduct were followed.

"It's not breaking the law. It's gathering evidence," Tobin said. "And the key here is it's under supervision."

Leal, the former prosecutor, says the law does make certain exceptions for cops. For example, it's not illegal for officers to have cocaine on them to offer in a sale to a suspect. But it's not a free pass, he said.

"There's no similar exception in prostitution cases," Leal said.

One attorney who defended a client facing racketeering charges in a Tampa strip club case questions the resources - taxpayer money - devoted to such investigations.

"My take, not from a legal standpoint but as a citizen, I'm not sure that they're properly estimating the public's concern for these (cases) in light of the amount of time and money being spent," said Tampa lawyer Paul Sisco, who was part of a case that ultimately dismantled that city's ban on lap dances in clubs.

Tobin would not say how much the informants were paid.

Robert Batey, a criminal law professor at Stetson University College of Law, said he thinks the informants' actions, though they may appear unseemly, could still hold up legally.

"I think it's more an internal organizational standard," Batey said. "In most police departments, they don't want their employees engaging in sexual conduct."

Tobin said that's true of the Sheriff's Office: "We hold law enforcement to a higher standard."

Batey said the question may come down to the constitutional standard of due process. The defense would have to prove that the informants' actions violated basic fairness to the extent that it, in Batey's words, "shocks the judicial conscience."

"My guess is that most judges would not be shocked," he said. "They may disapprove."